Signposts, waymarks and unauthorised notices

Signposts, sometimes referred to as ‘finger posts’, are the familiar posts erected where a public right of way leaves a hard surfaced road, with an arm pointing in the direction the path runs. Waymarks are the coloured arrows or other marks provided along the route of a right of way which help users to follow it confidently in places where the route isn’t obvious.

Signposting

Highway authorities (county councils or unitary authorities) have a legal duty to erect and maintain a signpost at every point where a right of way leaves a hard surfaced road (section 27 of the Countryside Act 1968).

A signpost must show the status of the path (i.e. whether it’s a footpath, bridleway, byway or restricted byway). It may also indicate the destination of the path, and give the distance, if the highway authority thinks it is appropriate.

Only if the local council (the parish, town, or community council) agrees that a signpost isn’t necessary at a particular location is the highway authority relieved of its duty to provide one.

Waymarking

Section 27 of the Countryside Act 1968 also requires highway authorities to place signs along a path ‘as may in the opinion of the authority be required to assist persons unfamiliar with the locality’ to follow the route.

Natural England and Natural Resources Wales recommend the following colours for waymarks to indicate the status of the route:

  • Yellow for footpaths
  • Blue for bridleways
  • Plum for restricted byways
  • Red for byways open to all traffic

A highway authority must consult the landowner before waymarking. They’re only required to consult with the landowner, not to obtain their s permission as the landowner doesn’t have a veto over waymarking.

The exception is if the highway authority wants to fix a waymark on something belonging to the landowner (e.g. a tree or a wall on the landowner's property). In these cases it will need to obtain the landowner’s permission. If permission isn’t forthcoming, the authority still has the power to erect signposts on the path surface.

Practical work

Under section 27 of the Countryside Act 1968 a highway authority can give permission for other people to erect and maintain signs. Many individuals and groups, including Ramblers path maintenance teams, undertake such work which helps prevent accidental trespassing and increases people’s enjoyment of the countryside by enabling them to follow paths with confidence.

Unauthorised notices

Under section 57 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 it’s an offence for anyone to put up a notice on or near a right of way if it contains false or misleading information likely to deter people from using the path. This covers cases where the landowner puts up a sign saying ‘Danger, fierce dogs’ and either there are no dogs or they do not have access to the path (if they did, the sign wouldn’t be misleading).

Section 57 only applies to routes which are shown on definitive maps [link to definitive maps explained] and prosecutions relating to unauthorised notices can be brought only by the highway authority or district council, not by private individuals or parish, town or community councils. Such cases are heard in magistrates’ courts where magistrates can impose a fine and can also order that the notice be removed, and impose a continuing fine for failure to comply.

Some rights of way run over private roads, where landowners sometimes put up signs saying ‘Private Road’ or ‘Private Drive’. The courts haven’t decided if this is a misleading statement likely to dissuade the public from using rights of way. Probably the best way of dealing with this situation is for the highway authority to erect a signpost near the owner’s notice, making it clear that the public has a right of way also.

Unauthorised signs

Under section 132 of the Highways Act 1980 it’s an offence to paint, inscribe or affix (without lawful authority or reasonable excuse) any picture, letter, sign or other mark on the surface of any right of way or upon any tree, structure or works.

A highway authority has the power to remove such signs or make the owner (or occupier) of the land in question do so. If he or she fails to take action then the authority does the necessary works and recovers the cost.

Obliteration of signs

It’s an offence to pull down or obliterate a traffic sign or direction post. Local authority officers can be authorised to issue fixed penalty notices to anyone found obliterating signs.

Further reading